Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fear of The Unknown

Clients often tell me that they are afraid of "recovery." Regardless of what they're recovering from, and how painful it's been, the idea of recovery is still scary. Why? Because recovery represents something that triggers some innate fear in all of us - Fear of The Unknown.

It is true that most (but not all) of my clients had some period of their lives before their problem began - a period, we might presume, of relative "health." If recovery is a return to health, how is it The Unknown?

One possibility is that people have forgotten what health was actually like - how they felt and acted when "healthy." We might suppose that the longer the problem has lasted, and the shorter the preceding period of health, the harder it is to remember to remember. Greater intensity of problems may also pose more of an obstacle to remembering. Either way, forgetting renders "health" an Unknown.

Another possible explanation is that the problems that bring people to therapy also have a way of skewing their perspectives - memories, beliefs, ideas, etc. Sometimes problems become part of their identities, or seems like an inevitable part of their futures. Because of how the human brain is structured, it is much easier for someone to recall all of their past experiences that are similar to their current experience, and imagine a future that is also similar, than it is to call up competing examples. As a result, "recovery" can be a fleeting concept in the mind, hard to pin down and easily overwhelmed by problem-thinking.

Whatever the reason that "recovery" is experienced as an Unknown, it is undeniably that Unknowns inspire a fear like no other. Even those who are facing a serious medical diagnosis usually say that waiting for results of diagnostic tests is the hardest part, because the waiting is a period of sitting with The Unknown. So, what's so scary about The Unknown?

All of our natural fear responses - fighting, fleeing, worrying, etc. - are designed to be responses to an actual threat. Our instincts are helpful when we're being chased by a bear...or navigating a dangerous intersection, or to a lesser extent, when we need to figure out how to get our work done or pay our bills. If there is an identifiable problem, we can apply our worry and excess energy to finding a solution.

When there is not an identifiable problem, problem-solving falls flat. We don't know what to do about The Unknown. We don't know what will help, or where to begin to get a desirable outcome, because we don't know where we're starting, or where we're going. Whatever we think or do just adds to our anxiety, because we always end up back at the same place: with our hands tied by the inscrutability of The Unknown.

And there is no quick fix, no easy solution. We can't give our clients the kind of lived experience of recovery that would ease their minds and making it somehow a Known quantity. We can help them imagine, put up metaphorical signposts and point the way. But, each person has to feel their own way into recovery, into knowing and believing in it. In the wise words of Rainer Maria Rilke (1903):

"...have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."

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